Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Staring death in the skull

  There have been various points along the past six months that have affirmed that the best-laid plans are not laid at all, but rather the results of unintended collisions of energy and ideas. In addition to hard work and perseverance, I have found that my path of travel and collaboration has largely been determined by a uncontrolled and uncontrollable factor that some may label “God,” “luck,” “the Universe,” “the Divine,” “the Great Mother,” etc. The coincidences, chance encounters, and fantastical opportunities I have had are products of my willingness to be open to spontaneity and the unfamiliar, but them, but even then I marvel at the experiences I have seemingly walked into blindly. If this seems like a lot of hippie-dippie nonsense, you will have to remember that I have been immersed in Ubud for the last month, where the yoga community seems to be a quasi-cult, and I surmise the ratio of psychics, astrologers, and spiritual healers to resident is among the highest in the world. (I am no longer momentarily speechless when someone tells me that they specialize in palmistry or have communed with angels during a shamanistic ceremony.)

  That said, it does seem that some higher power was behind the chance encounter I had just a week ago that hugely affected the course of my Watson year. For almost eight months I have been interested in spending time in Banyuwangi, a port city at the tip of East Java and an Indonesia musical backwater that has been described to me as a “rough town” and “a center of conservative Islam, black magic, and cross-dressing.” MIT faculty composer Evan Ziporyn, who runs the MIT gamelan ensemble and with whom I collaborated on multiple musical projects last spring, mentioned Banyuwangi to me as a place that uses violin in its gandrung music ensembles, a unique local phenomenon that he believes no Western musicians have studied. Despite my research and inquiries, I have had absolutely no luck finding anyone with direct ties or knowledge about the town—and the people I have spoken with have warned me about going there alone (it doesn’t help my cause that there is underlying tension between Balinese and Javanese people). I am fascinated by the little I know about Banyuwangi, but am not willing to venture there alone and without local contacts.

  I was leaving a restaurant in central Ubud when I unexpectedly ran into fellow Wellesley alum Carly—not so surprising because she lives and works in Ubud. What I didn’t expect was that Adona, another alum, would be with her—the two of them got together after Adona mentioned in an online forum for Wellesley alumnae that she would be passing through Bali for a day on her way back to Australia and wanted to meet some alums here (someone put them in touch). So I ran into the two of them, and of course we spent the evening reliving our college days commiserating over coconuts. I mentioned my struggles to find contacts in Banyuwangi and figure out my next step in Indonesia, and Adona, who has worked in international organizations for much of her career, offered to ask on Facebook if her friends had any leads for me.

  The next day I was contemplating where I could go next in lieu of Banyuwangi when I saw that someone had responded to Adona’s query—lo and behold, one of her friends had written back that his partner is a dancer from Banyuwangi, and would be happy to talk to me about studying music there. After contacting him and briefly introducing my project, I spoke to both of them over the phone a few days later. Despite never having met me, they were unbelievably generous and encouraging—the Banyuwangi dancer told me that her siblings are dancers and mother is a singer who are closely connected with the musicians in town, and are ecstatic a foreigner would want to come to learn about music and culture and Banyuwangi. She said that they would be thrilled to host me and introduce me to local musicians and dancers; just as reassuring, her partner and she assuaged my fears that being a woman and a foreigner would inhibit my ability to spend time and study music in Banyuwangi. While I have learned a lot studying in Bali and had the opportunity to make music in various ways here, I am excited to move away from the automatic “tourist” label that seems to inhibit my ability to participate more in the music culture here. I can’t say what the musical environment will be like in Banyuwangi, but as it is not a holidaymaking hub and I will be living with a family, I can only imagine it will be a stark but welcome contrast to the Ubud bubble.

  In fact, I have hardly been acting like a typical tourist here—my near-daily three- to four-hour rebab lessons take up large chunks of the day, and then coupled with daily yoga there’s hardly much time left. Realizing that I shouldn’t spend my entire time in Bali in one studio or another, I awoke one morning with a mission:

  Come hell or high water, I’m going to a volcano today.

  I packed two types of sunscreen, asked my hosts at the guest house where I’m staying for directions to Mount Batur, the closest volcano, (“turn left at the large Arjuna statue, and then go straight for an hour and a half”), put on my sarong over my shorts, raincoat, and helmet, and set off on my one-woman motorbike adventure. I intended for the sarong to serve as a shield in multiple senses—to shield my whiteness from the sun, and from the eyes of the police who inevitably were camped out on the main road to bust foreigners driving with the mandatory international driver’s license. Most foreigners in Indonesia on a short term basis do not have an international driver’s license, and I will be the first to admit that I do not have a driver’s license, period. This is a well-known fact and established money-making scheme for the police, who threaten unlicensed foreign drivers with steep fines unless they pay a bribe. I knew this going into my excursion, but hoped that I would be lucky and avoid the police, or at least not tip them off with my “disguise.” Things were going swimmingly until I was about ten minutes out from the volcano—suddenly, a small brigade of police officers blocking my path appeared in my vision a few hundred yards ahead. I had heard various pieces of advice from travelers and locals about how to deal with the police, ranging from the ballsy (don’t stop, speed on through) to the rational (tell them you have no money) to the dramatic (pretend you can’t speak English). The last person I had seen before leaving for my adventure had suggested the latter, and so I made a game-time decision as the police drew near and shouted at me to show my license—no English it was. As the police demanded my license and took the keys out of my bike, I widened out of my eyes and smiled.

  “ごめんなさい、英語がわかんないけど。。。sorii, no iingurishu!”
  “Where your license? Driver’s license?”
  “これは何の意味ですか? I asked sweetly.
  “You have license? License? Card?”
  “カード?これはモーターバイクです[Card? This is a motorbike!]“ (Internal back pat for making bilingual puns under pressure.)

  After going back and forth like this for a minute, the officer addressing me pulled out his own license and pushed it in my face.I read it out loud slowly: “Mengamudi! You—Mengamudi?”
  “Mengamudi! You! License?”
  “Ahh,” I exclaimed. “You—Mengamudi. Me—Audrey,” I said rolling my r’s and channeling my best me-Tarzan-you-Jane impression.
  “No! You! License! Where you from?”
  “Me? I from...”I thought for a moment—another game-time decision. “Belize. From Belize.”

  Why Belize, you ask? I have a running joke with my dear and ethnically ambiguous friend Helen that we are from Belize after a Chinese salesman guessed that’s where we were from. It seemed so unlikely, and it turns out in retrospect he was probably guessing we were from Belgium—Bilishi.
In any case, I had just committed to being a Japanese/Mandarin-speaking citizen of Belize, and believe me when I say you can’t come back from that.
  “Belize? Where Belize? Venezuela?”
  “No Venezuela,” I emphatically shook my head.
  “Near Russia?”
  I acted even more insulted. At this point, the police seemed exasperated dealing with this cheery and unfazed world citizen. They cut to the chase, pulling out a menu of possible road offenses coupled with steep fines for perpetrators. The pointed to mine—driving without a license—and told me that I would need to go to the court and pay a one-million rupiyah fine (about $80).
  “You from Japan?”The officer was catching on—time to switch to Mandarin.

  He started writing down a figure—he wanted a bribe. What I hadn’t anticipated was that, while I can definitely act like a Pollyanna foreign tourist under duress, negotiating sums in body language and broken Indonesian (having committed to not speaking English) is not my strong suit. It didn’t help that there were five or more officers, not one, and they all wanted a bribe. In the end I paid 200,000 rupiyah—about $16, but still way too much—after which the officer gave me some pity oranges and asked if I had a boyfriend. Time to go. Next time if I have to negotiate with bribable authorities I will definitely use my English and just tell them I am a broke student—a less entertaining excuse, but probably much more effective—you can’t take what isn’t there.

  In any case, I forged on (with the assurance from the police that my steep bribe would ensure I wouldn’t have problems on my return later). I reached the end of the long road and suddenly found myself across from an enormous volcano and crater lake—I had reached my destination. I also hadn’t planned any farther past just arriving there, and was puttering along when someone screamed at me, “The lake is this way!” I ignore lots of people screaming things they think might be informative to me around these parts (“Taxi!” and “Nice sarong!” being the most common), but this gentleman seemed to know how to reach the lake, and so I figured he would probably know how to get to the volcano was as well.

  This is how I met Nyoman, onion farmer and resident of Trunyan village, one of the few villages in Bali that doesn’t bury the corpses of their dead. He connected me with a guide to hike up the volcano, and also offered to take me to his village’s cemetery, a sacred place for Javanese and Balinese alike. I had read about Trunyan but heard the villagers were somewhat hostile to outside visitors, so I jumped at the chance when Nyoman offered to bring me there. (I had learned my lesson with the police and played the student card to negotiate a good rate this time.) I rode on the back of his motor bike on the terrifyingly potholed, partially unpaved winding road around the crater lake until we reached Trunyan, which sits serenely at the base of steep mountains and across from the volcano at Mount Batur. Along with a Nyoman and a few Javanese and Balinese visitors, I took a rickety motorboat (can motorboats be rickety? This one was) to the cemetery, which sits in cove of the lake and is inaccessible by land (“so the dogs do not eat the bodies,” Nyoman explained.)
Trunyan village, as seen from the boat
Temple at Trunyan
  We pulled up to a small dock and entered the cemetery. At first I was surprised by how much trash was scattered over the site—food wrappers, old cans, and so many shoes. How could so many people lose their shoes in one small cemetery? Straight ahead were bamboo teepees of sorts housing the unburied bodies covered with sarongs within. One teepee looked especially new—“This one came in yesterday,” Nyoman told me—and in front of it was a basket full of cooked food, money, and an entire outfit—all offerings for the spirit’s afterlife. The teepee site can only accommodate eleven bodies at once, so when real estate gets tight the family of the deceased returns to sweep the teepee and offerings to a large pile to the left side—this explained the abundance of seemingly discarded shoes and trash. Closer inspection of this pile reveals hip bones, skulls, rib cages, and other body parts mixed in the heap. After a certain period of time elapses the family again returns to clean the bones and then move them permanently to a stack of skulls to the right.
  “There are so many bones mixed up in this pile,” I mentioned to Nyoman. “How does the family know they have the right skeleton?”
  “It doesn’t matter. They just choose some and clean those.”

  Apparently this tradition goes back two thousand years and predates Hinduism in Bali. The cemetery is a special and mystical spot for many Indonesians, who especially come to visit on ceremony days, because of the taru menyan tree (literally “good-smelling tree”) that Nyoman told me is the only one of its kind on the entire island. (“Even the German scientists came here and could not find another tree like it.”) This tree is said to mask the smell of the decaying bodies—indeed, there was no bad smell at all. While I wouldn’t want to be there at night, despite being literally surrounded by corpses, it was a surprisingly calming, peaceful, and even beautiful spot.

[photo interlude for skulls]
Trunyan cemetery--from left to right: pile of offerings and bones,
newest bodies in bamboo teepees, skull display, and taru menyan tree
The bodies are housed in these bamboo structures
Please note the entire cooked chicken among the offerings in the basket 
The good-smelling tree in all its glory 
Among the things the deceased might need--flip-flops and Pocari Sweat
Can you spot the hip bone, skull, feet, and arm? Not pictured--a lingering rib cage
Skull central
Nyoman asked me if I wanted to hold a skull. I opted for this group shot instead.
A video posted by Audrey Woz (@audreywoz) on

  After another crazy ride around the crater lake, Nyoman dropped me off with Ketut, his friend and a Mount Batur volcano guide. (Guides are mandatory for trekking to the top of the volcano.) Most visitors to the volcano go up extremely early in the morning (3 or 4 am) so as to catch the sunrise from the top. I had no intention of getting up that early (and also am not super keen on climbing in pitch blackness) so at midday Ketut and I schlepped it to the top. Once again I was faced with the notion of human mortality—this time my own, as the ascent to the top was a brutal hike, particularly with the sun overhead and steep and unsteady path beneath. I was grateful for the hundreds of lunges I had been doing in the weeks prior; Ketut told me about tourists who had attempted the hike and turned around well before the halfway point. (He told me in his year and a half of leading the hike I was the strongest climber he had guided—I am skeptical, but hey, flattered all the same.) When we reached the top an hour or so after setting off, legs aflame, it became evident we were truly the only ones on top of the peak. If you ever have the chance to be the only one on top of the largest volcanic crater in sight, I absolutely recommend it.

[Another (less bony) photo interlude]

View from the side of the volcano looking out on the caldera 

On the long trek up
A photo shoot is a great excuse to take a break
Halfway there
The crater at the top!

View from the top
This volcano is still active...

Onion farms at the base of the volcano 

Death rounded out my weekend, as the following day I was invited to attend a Balinese cremation ceremony, or ngaben. It's a full-day affair that brings out the entire village, complete with a procession, marching gamelan group, and of course burning of offerings and the body. I looked to see if anyone was upset or in mourning, but in fact the environment was relaxed, and even festive. If you’re going to have a funeral, this is definitely the way to do it. In contrast to a traditional Christian burial involving a lot of black and a lot of mourning, this felt more akin to a Day of the Dead celebration of life, from the colorful offerings and clothing to the percussive music leading the veritable parade down the village streets. I performed composer Evan Ziporyn’s work Ngaben for orchestra and gamelan in the spring, which commemorates the 2002 Bali bombings. Having been at the exact site of the bombings and also witnessed the coming together of the Balinese community for a cremation of one of their own, perhaps the most rewarding part of attending the ceremony was more deeply comprehending the music’s inspiration and significance. 

Positioning for the procession

A video posted by Audrey Woz (@audreywoz) on

A video posted by Audrey Woz (@audreywoz) on

Preparing to burn the offerings

A video posted by Audrey Woz (@audreywoz) on
I am planning to depart for Banyuwangi in about a week, so until then I am going to do my best to make the most of my remaining time in Bali—soaking in as much culture and farm-to-table fairly sourced fresh fruit juice as I can in these last few days. Stay (heptatonically) tuned— 
Another gorgeous Bali sunset 
Balinese dance performance with an all-women's gamelan group 

Temple complex in Ubud

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